The Scary Truth About Your iPhone

Killer apps: The real story behind your smart phone’s innards.

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IT’S A CELL PHONE, a camera, a media player, and a handheld computer all in one. But what makes the iPhone such a great tech toy also makes it a perfect example of the often murky, sometimes downright sketchy origins of our electronics. Here’s a glimpse of what’s really in an iPhone 3GS—and any number of other gadgets, from laptops to game consoles:

We’ve loaded this iPhone up with 10 apps you won’t find on a real smart phone. Click on an app to learn where your phone’s electronic components really came from.

Supply Side Bad Apples Miner Threat Tantalized
Negative Charge Tin Soldiers
Screen Slaver MicroPolluter
BadVibes Locked In
Reset iPhone
 

 

Supply Side

Apple spends an estimated $100 on the iPhone’s 1,000-plus parts. It keeps a tight lid on where in the world they come from. If you deconstruct the gadget, you’ll find fewer than 130 parts with a brand name or “made in” label on them.

Bad Apples

iPhones are made in Shenzhen, China, by the Taiwanese company Foxconn, which has been criticized for its working conditions, including long hours and harsh discipline. Apple’s own review found that more than half its audited manufacturers did not meet its labor standards for things such as child labor.

Miner Threat

A 16GB iPhone 3GS contains 12 gold-plated parts. Producing 1 ounce of gold creates 80 tons of waste. Layers of middlemen make it difficult to trace the source of the gold (or any other metal) in an iPhone, making it easy for minerals from conflict zones to slip into the supply chain.

Tantalized

The iPhone includes a tantalum capacitor. After a United Nations report linked its manufacturer, Kemet, to the illegal mineral trade in eastern Congo, the company vaguely announced it “supports avoiding” tantalum from the region.

Negative Charge

Rechargeable batteries have energized demand for lithium. Getting more will mean digging up 3,000 square miles of pristine Bolivian salt flats, home to one-half of the world’s lithium reserves.

Tin Soldiers

Tin is used to solder circuit boards. Some 27,000 tons are extracted from Congo annually, earning armed groups an estimated $93 million or more.

Screen Slaver

The 3.5-inch LCD screen is reportedly made in Taiwan and China by Wintek, which faces allegations of low wages, forced overtime, and ripping off migrant workers.

BadVibes

High-density tungsten is used to make cell phones vibrate. Three-quarters of the world’s supply comes from China—not known for its mining safety record—and 1,400 tons are dug up annually in Congo.

MicroPolluter

Making a 0.07-ounce microchip uses 66 pounds of materials, including water and toxic chemicals such as flame retardants and chlorinated solvents. Greenpeace gives Apple a 5.1 out of 10 for its efforts to eliminate hazardous chemicals and minimize e-waste.

Locked In

The list price for a 16GB iPhone 3GS is $599. It’s yours for $199 thanks to a subsidy from monopoly provider AT&T—which proceeds to fleece you with a two-year contract.

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Thank you!

We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

The months and years ahead won't be easy. Far from it. But there's no one we'd rather face the big challenges with than you, our committed and passionate readers, and our team of fearless reporters who show up every day.

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